How to enable and sustain self-organization

Harrison Owen, the originator of Open Space Technology, lists eight steps for the care and feeding of self-organization systems in Wave Rider: Leadership for High Performance in a Self-Organizing World. The number of steps can be fewer or more, depending on how one counts, but these are the eight essentials:

  1. Do Your Homework Before You Start. First consider where you want to go, why you want to go there, and what might happen along the way. Until there is some clarity about where you want to go, the likelihood of reaching there is small. But clarity of where you want to go is just one part. It must be complemented with caring. Why you want to go must have enough heart and meaning.
  2. Extend an Invitation. An real invitation is one that can be refused. This carries the risk that people might choose not to come, but it also assures that those who do come actually care to come. Again, clarity and caring are essential ingredients.
  3. Come to Circle. The circle is the geometry of free, open space, and rapid communication. Physical circles of people are rich and productive. In circle all people meet face-to-face with free, open space in between. This enables free, rapid communication. People need the maximum freedom to create their own pathways, together.
  4. Welcome Passion, Responsibility, and Authentic Leadership. This is really another way of saying, make sure the whole person is welcome. The real issue is diversity, the particular differences in each individual. When whole people are invited to come with their passions, they will assume personal responsibility. Genuine responsibility cannot be commanded. It will only appear voluntarily. If we invite passion and responsibility, authentic leadership will appear in abundance, which will provide focus and direction as needed. This has nothing to do with the appearance of The Leader. There will be many emergent leaders, each a nodal point for caring, if invited. This will continue as long as the invitation is renewed. Invitation, in short, is not done once.
  5. Remember the Four Principles. The principles are descriptive, not prescriptive. They don’t tell people what to do, but what will be happening. The principles are:
    Whoever Comes Are the Right People. When people who care about the same thing come together, there is a possibility that useful work will begin. The critical issue is not how many they are, but how much they care.
    Whatever Happens Is the Only Thing That Could Have. Don’t worry about what might, could, and even should, have happened. The past is over and the future hasn’t happened yet. All we have is now, and every little bit of conscious awareness and attention helps.
    Whenever It Starts Is the Right Time. Things start when they start. The sense of time and structure are emergent and internally generated. When external controls are enforced, performance will likely decline
    When It’s Over It’s Over. Everything has a beginning, middle, and an end. When the end comes it is best to acknowledge the fact and move on.
  6. Observe the Law of Two Feet. If, at any time, you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet and move on. This may sound prescriptive, but we all follow this law. We are no longer present, nor do we care to be present, when our interest dissipates. In short, the Law of Two Feet keeps our attention on what has heart and meaning for us, what we care about. To ensure focus and adaptability, use your feet.
  7. Keep Grief Working. Grief work transforms the pain of ending into the joy of a new beginning. We might wish to escape it, but there is no alternative. It will proceed with, or without, our assistance, but it can be facilitated. Facilitation is not primarily about doing something, although it can help, but simply about being a companion on a difficult journey. The grief cannot be avoided, it can only be passed through.
  8. Formalize the System. The need for the formal system is real, but is best met in moderation. Good maps are helpful if they reflect the territory. In no case will the maps create the territory. The key question is “What is the minimal level of formal structures and procedures necessary to sustain system function?” And less is always best. In short, it is the system that drives the procedures, not the other way around. Ensuring the free flow of information is the single most important concern in formalizing the system, because effective communication is essential for the continued well-being of any self-organizing system.

Related posts:
Pre-conditions for self-organization
Self-organization is the real operating system
Emergence is simply what life does
Empowerment is a red herring
Pre-conditions for self-organization
What if the organization is a living system?
Facilitating an Open Space
How to enable and sustain self-organization
TEDxTalk on Open Space Technology

Published by Jan Höglund

Jan Höglund has over 35 years experience in different roles as software developer, project manager, line manager, consultant, and researcher. This is his personal blog. A common theme is his search for better ways of working together.

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